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Children's Literature Assessment Design

For this task, due on 10th June, you will be writing an essay – but not just an ordinary essay. Remembering that one of the learning outcomes for this module is to “[d]evelop skills in crafting writing for specific purposes, both academic and non-academic”, this essay is going to centre on a more creative approach to the subject.

This essay will therefore chart your development of your own idea for a piece of children’s literature. Hopefully it will not take you long to realise that such a task is far from simple. It will require a number of complex processes, of critical awareness, and an understanding of how language can be narrowed in order that the reader has multiple pathways of possible expansion.

This assignment does not require that you actually write a children’s story (although if you wanted to do so, you could add it as an appendix).

What it requires is that you demonstrate a process of shaping a story – thinking about it in terms of its ideas and their relationship to child development, its intended readers, its ideologies and assumptions, its narrative, structure and modes of discourses, and the interaction of text and image within it.

As you demonstrate your thinking about these things in your essay, you will need to ensure that you are demonstrating that your thinking is critically informed. In other words, it is one thing for just anybody to say ‘hey, how about this great idea for a children’s book?!’, but as undergraduates you are (perhaps unfortunately) required to demonstrate more. You are to show that you are people who are widely read and critically aware. Your thinking about children’s books will need to demonstrate:

  • That you understand critical and theoretical issues about children’s literature;

  • That you can analyse children’s stories using these theories;

  • That you understand stories in terms of psychological or social meaning;

  • That you can shape your own writing in relation to all of these points.

So it might be worth thinking about this essay in terms of these stages:

Start with experience you want to write about or an issue you want to address.

This could from your own experiences – and generally the best stories start out this way. Your experience could be how you felt when you got a treat as a child, and the sadness (perhaps) of the fact that such simple and unadulterated joy is so short-lived (which is a significant thing for a child), or how a child’s sense of the world is so dramatically expanded by the first experience of ‘holiday’. Here you could maybe think about the experiences which other writers have drawn on: The experiences of grief which underpin Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, or John Burningham’s Grandpa; experiences of absent fatherhood in Anthony Browne’s Gorilla, or experiences of childhood ‘wildness’ in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Exploring texts in relation to the experiences they relate to will allow you to demonstrate analysis of the texts. They will enable you, as well, to consider how the writers have transformed experience into story – did they use metaphor, or fantasy? Did they use realism? – and draw on their examples in how you start to shape your own experiences into story.

Consider from the child’s perspective

This is the important part of the process where you try to externalise your experiences – thinking about your intended reader, and about how children perceive experiences. At this point you will start to refine a little the specific age you are targeting your story at, which is significant in terms of pitching its tone. This would be a good opportunity to think about your story, its experience or issue, in terms of a child’s social and psychological development. Here is a good opportunity to draw on critical texts about how children’s literature relates to these processes.

What ideological issues are there?

As well as thinking about your intended reader, you need to think about yourself as an adult writer, and adult readers in general. For much children’s literature has the explicit purpose of instructing undeveloped social beings according to the values of the times. Those of you who have already looked at a range of literary theories in Literature in Theory will already be familiar with thinking about texts in terms of ideologies relating power, gender, or difference. This is the point at which you can ask yourself questions about your experience, and what ideologies you can see which shaped that experience or your reaction to it. Are those ideologies ones you want to perpetuate, or to challenge? Again, this is a good opportunity to demonstrate analysis of other texts, exploring the ideological basis of other children’s stories, and (perhaps more importantly) using critical texts to help you draw them out.

Re-frame the story

At this point, you may want to think about the location of your story. Think about time, think about place and think about character. As Maurice Sendak says in the quote at the beginning of this module guide, children often process their ‘wildness’ through fantasy. Do you want to re-locate your story into fantasy, or try and keep it in a reality? Or do you want to use a kind of transitional meta-narrative of the kind Sendak uses? What about the characters? Do you want them to be human, or can you better explain aspects of the characters by turning them (Aesop-like) into animals or monsters? Again, look at examples of other writers – what did they do? Why? Did it work? How do other writers use character to explain things without having to use words? (for example, the fox is always cunning – you don’t need to say it; the big monster is always misunderstood, or a bully, etc.).

Narrative style and Discourse

The narrative style, form of discourse and the visual elements are really all parts of a simultaneous process. You want to be thinking about the balance between showing and telling your story: Are you telling a story to children, or are you showing them things from which they can draw out their own stories? This will relate again to your intended reader, because it relates to how much of your story, and its meaning, you want your reader to work out for themselves. Will you use a narrator? Will your characters talk? If so, how?

Thinking visually

Of course, your idea of a story is an idea for a picturebook. Obviously you are not going to be expected to illustrate your own story, and I imagine Axel Scheffler is probably a little busy to oblige you. So, you will need to think about images for your story by again looking at examples from other books. Do you think this part of the story would work well with the kind of semi-realistic and descriptive expressionism of Quentin Blake? Or perhaps the more abstract expressionism of Anthony Browne would be a better fit? What about the brooding fantastical surrealism of Shaun Tan, or the innocent and sentimental realism of Shirley Hughes? Analyse the books you have looked at for how the pictures relate to the text – and again draw on critical sources to help you. Then, use these ideas to develop a sense of the visual style of your own story. You could even use a Google image search to find pictures which illustrate the kinds of things you mean. Do remember, that in this section you may well be using images from Google or from the books you have studied – these do need to be referenced. There are guidelines on references images from the internet in Quote/Unquote.

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